The 50 Best Albums of 2011

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Every day between now and New Year’s Day, we’ll be looking back at the best music and pop culture of 2011. We start with the year’s best albums.

30. Tom Waits – Bad As Me
For his 20th studio album, Tom Waits’ wife and longtime musical collaborator, Kathleen Brennan, advised the gravelly voiced Rock and Roll Hall of Famer to keep it simple. No long, winding epic songs about soldiers at war, no massive, meandering epics. Much of Bad as Me sticks to this modus operandi, especially its best tracks like quick, horn-led opener “Chicago,” the hiccuping, rollicking “Get Lost” and monster single “Bad as Me.” Bottling Waits’ overflowing personality and unusual voice serves to make it that much more frenetic and affecting. Elsewhere, he stretches out, but only a little, with the help of his son Casey on drums, longtime collaborators Marc Ribot (guitar) and Les Claypool (bass), and various other big names like Keith Richards, Flea, Ben Jaffe and Daivd Hidalgo. The whole thing is a bit ramshackle, but when he listens to his wife, Bad as Me is as good as anything Waits has ever done. —Austin L. Ray

29. Feist – Metals
The very qualities that make Leslie Feist such a distinctive pop artist are also the very things that make her too easy to dismiss: her understated melodies, restrained performances and thoughtful arrangements. Feist makes music that requires close attention and repeated spins, and yet there’s almost always a payoff—some revelation that rewards the listener’s investment. The new songs are much more introverted and downbeat—not a conscious step away from The Reminder’s pop pleasures but a logical flip side. The music, however, remains sophisticated and rhythmically feisty (pun thoroughly intended) even when so thoroughly keyed down. Above all else, Metals emphasizes Feist’s vocals, which sound as though they were recorded very closely to capture even the finest textures and subtlest tones.—Stephen M. Deusner

28. Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
At the drop of a programmed snare hit, Lykke Li, the Swedish princess of off-beat art-pop, can turn from sugar-coated sweetheart to devilish temptress to futuristic night club siren. On Wounded Rhymes, Lykke Li has stepped up her game, crafting a brasher, more well-rounded effort that fully realizes the potential she showed on her debut. Li’s voice is basically a mixture of every great female art-pop artist you’ve heard; there’s a bit of Kate Bush’s alien whine, a pinch of Bat for Lashes smoke-screen atmospherics, even a hint of fellow Swedish pop sensation Robyn’s sassy croon. Tribal sounds loom large, kettle drums popping holes in the mix over deadpan synths and cozy blankets of noise. While her debut, Youth Novels, was a cool little hand-drawn doodle done in pencil—this is an oil painting, rich with color and more vivid detail. —Ryan Reed

27. Black Lips – Arabia Mountain
Drinking champagne out of Mark Ronson’s Grammy Award may be the best move that the Black Lips have ever made. In addition to continuing their badass reputation, it sparked a collaboration between the Atlanta punk rockers and the retro-minded producer on their latest album Arabia Mountain. While the pairing may seem odd, it’s a good kind of odd. For the first time in the band’s history, the Black Lips’ music truly outshines their antics. In particular, Ronson helped the Black Lips shape this record into a focused, tight-knit garage-rock collection, retaining everything the band does right while doing away with the unnecessary frills. Despite being 16 songs long, the record punches through with hook after hook of infectious punk rock.—Max Blau

26. The Low Anthem – Smart Flesh
If you decide to give Smart Flesh your full attention (and you should), you’ll hear an album full of echoes, hushed vocals and stripped-down beauty. You’ll be greeted by gorgeous harmonies. And most importantly, you’ll hear some great stories. It’s the lyrics that make Smart Flesh truly shine with richly developed characters, whether they’re crippled with grief after the death of a loved one or searching for redemption as their own lives start to slip away. There are enough abandoned graveyards, bouts with alcoholism and visits from the Grim Reaper here to make a David Lynch movie seem sunny, but it never feels overwrought. Smart Flesh is subtle, but if you listen closely enough, you’ll find yourself immersed in its drama.—Bonnie Stiernberg

25. The Antlers – Burst Apart
This is a band still using their simple, seductive method of building quiet texture into a crash of energy. They reach for the stars with every chance they get, and “Putting the Dog to Sleep” might be the best song Silberman has written thus far—like most of his songs, it’s wrenching, dramatic and ultimately triumphant. He croons like a soul singer, his voice occasionally cracking under the weight of emotion, with each of his heavy admittances punctuated with a clashing guitar. Burst Apart is a record of big songs from a band that’s good at generating big songs, and we should be relieved that The Antlers can be impressive without an overarching concept behind them. —Luke Winkie

24. TV on the Radio – Nine Types of Light
Where Dear Science emphasized groove and density, Nine Types of Light is more restrained and elegant. There’s a sense of nakedness here that renders its results more personal and directly affecting. Sitek’s production is still trippy and headphone-worthy, the songs still arranged in colorful swirls of instrumentation, but the layers are easier to pick apart, the catapulting rhythms and noises given more space to breathe. The songs themselves are hazier and more insular, less emphatic and far more patient. Acoustic instruments, a first for the band, pop up on occasion—banjo plucks on the slow-building, cathedral atmosphere of “Killer Crane;” acoustic guitars in the Sunday morning soul of “Keep Your Heart”—and the ratio of ballads to bangers is staggering. They’ve been freaks; they’ve been lover-boys. Now they’re spaced-out romantics.—Ryan Reed

23. The Belle Brigade – The Belle Brigade
There’s nothing particularly complicated about The Belle Brigade. The band, made up of brother/sister duo Ethan and Barbara Gruska, writes simple songs about common themes like being in love, loneliness and feeling like an outcast. But it works. The most ear-pleasing quality of the band is the way their DNA-sharing vocal cords are able to vibrate perfectly together, creating full, textured harmonies that seem to rise above the instrumentation while flowing along it. The debut LP is a fun album full of breezy melodies straight from the highways of California; it’s damn near impossible not to bob along to the freewheeling music the pair has compiled for this first LP. —Wyndham Wyeth

22. The Black Keys – El Camino
The Black Keys’ seventh album isn’t due out until next Tuesday, but we sat in a publicity office in New York last month, just to get a preview. What we heard were more of Dan Auerbach’s giant, fuzzy, bluesy riffs and Patrick Carney’s propulsive drums. Lead single “Lonely Boy” tosses in a chorus of back-up singers to fill out the already huge sound that has made the duo sound right at home, even on some of the biggest festival main stages this year.—Josh Jackson

21. Charles Bradley – No Time For Dreaming
Over the past decade, Daptone Records has established a reputation not only as a cohesive record label, but also as a cultural institution responsible for curating a neo-soul revival with a distinct sound. It’s out of this tradition that 62-year old singer Charles Bradley finally overcame a lifetime full of setbacks to debut No Time For Dreaming—one of the best Daptone releases to date. No Time For Dreaming opens up with “The World (Is Going Up In Flames)” as Charles Bradley’s wail reflects the long road he has walked over the years. The soul-stirrer cries out with utmost conviction on “I Believe In Your Love” and “Why Is It So Hard” with six-plus decades of pent-up emotion pouring into his songs. “Heartaches and Pain” resonates warmly through its powerful honesty, as Bradley echoes the evocative delivery of Otis Redding. The Menahan Street Band hits their sweetspot as they lay down a lush, funk-laced backdrop for Bradley to work his magic. No Time For Dreaming prevails as a defining culmination of Bradley’s lifetime of making music.—Max Blau

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